The latest thinking on ecological landscapes. Useful tips to improve our environment

Kim Eierman

Kim Eierman

Founder of EcoBeneficial!

Available for virtual and in-person landscape consulting, talks and classes.

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Plant-Smart & Water-Wise: The Art of Sustainable Watering

During the hot, dry days of summer you may feel the urge to pull out the garden hose and water everything in sight.  Perhaps you have an in-ground sprinkler system that does the job for you, often running on a timer, watering whether irrigation is needed or not.  According to the EPA, one-third of all residential water is used to irrigate our landscapes.  Half of that water is wasted due to evaporation, misdirected watering and over-watering.

With more extreme weather events resulting from climate change, you can expect more frequent and longer periods of drought.  We all need to start thinking differently about watering, regardless of where we live.

How can you use water responsibly and efficiently in the garden?   The first step is to recognize that water is a valuable (and expensive) resource that we often take for granted, especially in the Eastern part of North America.  Look West for the best practices in preserving water in our landscapes.  Any California homeowner can tell you about drought, watering bans and the virtues of xeric (drought-tolerant) plants.

Here are some simple things you can do to keep your landscape looking great while preserving the H2O:

1) Start with appropriate plant choices, always favoring regional native plants which are adapted to your area.  This seems like a “no-brainer” but we frequently put the wrong plant in the wrong place.  Put a moisture-loving plant in a dry site and you have to water it constantly to keep it alive.

Research which plants are native to your area. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center native plant database is a good place to start.

2) Plant in the fall, when warm days and cool nights (in most parts of the country) are optimal for establishing plant roots.  You will need far less water at this time of year to establish most plants.  Note that some plants are better planted in the spring.  Most broad-leaved evergreens such as Mountain Laurels, evergreen Rhododendrons, Leucothoes, evergreen Magnolias, and Pieris, fall into this category.

3) Reduce or eliminate your turf grass lawn and replace with regional native plants.  The greatest water addict in our landscapes is the lawn.  The EPA estimates that the average American lawn uses 20,000 gallons of water per year!  Exotic turf grasses rarely look good without a significant amount of irrigation.  Consider replacing turf with a meadow or meadow-like garden that requires far less water, and, contributes far more to your ecosystem.  Although you can replace turf with a single native grass species, a monoculture of any kind is not ideal.  Plant diversely for best ecosystem health.

4) Regional native plants, properly sited, will often require fewer inputs, including less water, than many non-native plants.  Native plants are often very “low maintenance.”  Keep in mind that “low-maintenance” does not mean “no maintenance.”  All plants must establish healthy root systems to survive.  Make sure that newly-planted plants get sufficient watering during their first growing season – from you and/or Mother Nature.  For trees and shrubs, provide supplemental water through two growing seasons, for best results.

5) Water in the early morning to allow plant leaves to dry off during the day.  This helps to discourage fungal problems, keeping plants healthier.  If you water late in the day, or worse yet, at night, you are setting up the ideal conditions for fungal diseases, and stressed unhealthy plants.

6) Hand-watering is the best way to give each plant exactly the amount of water that it needs and where it needs it – on the roots.  Although this is time-consuming, it also has the advantage of being very meditative.  And, you will get to know your plants far better – spotting problems when they first appear.

7) If you cannot water by hand, then opt for soaker hoses or a drip or micro-drip irrigation system for your plants.  Overhead watering with sprinklers is enormously wasteful.  Evaporation takes a toll, and water goes everywhere – even where it is not needed.  The EPA estimates that 50% of the water we use outdoors is wasted.  This means that the average American lawn, irrigated by a sprinkler system, wastes about 10,000 gallons of water a year!  Drip irrigation delivers water to plant roots – exactly where it is needed.

8) Resist the urge to use a timer if you have an irrigation system.  Although they are convenient, timers often send out water when it is not needed.   We have all seen those yards where an automatic sprinkler is operating at full tilt during a rainstorm.  Please don’t be that wasteful homeowner.  Water when needed, and only when needed.   Always check the soil around plants first to determine if watering is needed at all.

9) Deep, infrequent watering is far better for plant health than frequent shallow watering is.   You want to encourage plant roots to delve down into the soil and establish a deep root system.  The common practice of brief, daily watering, simply encourages roots to stay close to the surface.  During periods of drought, these shallow-rooted plants (which you think you have been babying) will be the first to die off.

10) Healthy native plants with well-established roots should be self-sustaining in all but the worst drought conditions.  Sometimes a drought is so extreme that you may have to step in with supplemental watering, that is, if watering is not already banned in your area.   Don’t wait until your plants are about to expire before you intervene.

11)  Install rain barrels to capture and store stormwater runoff from your roof.  Rain barrels can be positioned under, or attached to, a gutter or leader.  You will prevent the stormwater from running into the street, while creating a supply of water for irrigation when you need it.   Since rain barrels are limited in their capacity, consider linking several together.  For more information on rain barrels, see this helpful flyer from Frederick Country, Maryland.

12) Consider installing a system for catching “greywater” from your household.  Greywater is the leftover waste water from your shower, sinks, washing machine, etc.  Toilet water is not used as greywater.  Keep in mind that harsh chemicals which you may be using in your water may be harmful to your plants.  If you are growing edibles, be especially careful.  Greywater systems can be as simple as catching dishwater in a tub, or far more complicated, tying into your household plumbing.  Here are two good resources for additional information from Greywater Action and Mother Earth News.

Before you pull out the hose this summer, remind yourself that water is one of our most precious resources. Be plant-smart and water-wise!

From Kim Eierman at EcoBeneficial!

Photo credit: Flickr_John Loo







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